Honor By August has built quite a name for itself as a touring band worth noticing. From the moment they won the Billboard World Songwriting Contest for a live version of their song “Only in Photographs,” this Washington D.C.-based four-piece has been off and running. They’ve toured with everyone from Hootie & the Blowfish to Emerson Hart, earning opening spots with Hanson and Bon Jovi through additional fan-voted contests. More important, their music really stands out, an upbeat, highly motivated blend of 90s-era alternative and modern pop backed by the members’ strong social conscience. With a name based off the adjective-meaning of august (“inspiring reverence or admiration”), and the dedication to actually put action behind the name, there’s a lot to cheer about here.
Lead singer and guitarist Michael Pearsall sat down to talk with Hear! Hear! Music in advance of Honor By August’s upcoming show at Indianapolis’s Rathskeller on Saturday the 22nd of November opening for Tony Lucca and Steepwater Band. He speaks candidly regarding his own motivations as a songwriter, what it takes to stay optimistic in today’s less-than-perfect musical climate, and what really makes a perfect pop song.
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Have you toured with Tony Lucca before?
Yes, we did an entire month together a year and a half ago and we’re under the same management team, so we’ve been friends for a few years.
I really love the meaning behind your band name. I was wondering, how do you work to inspire your fans to do more admirable things in their lives?
I would say first and foremost that we live by example. We do a lot of shows that are benefits for different organizations. In particular we’ve been doing a lot of work recently with the Alzheimers Foundation of America to help raise awareness about the disease. We’ve done countless other benefits for different organizations, whether for breast cancer awareness, the campaign for a free Tibet, so we try to lead by example by lending our musical abilities to events that are associated with causes we believe are worthy of attention.
Also, our music tends to have an optimistic, inspiring tone to it. So when people listen to the music hopefully that can inspire them to do something admirable, whether that’s as small as improving their lives or their own relationships in some way, or going out to make a difference in the world.
The other thing I found interesting is that your band has won numerous contests whether for your songs or to get on the bill with major-name artists. What drives your writing and performing ethic?
I am the primary songwriter for the band, but the process has become much more collaborative over the years. But personally it’s just a part of who I am. Ever since I was a kid, thirteen, fourteen years old, as soon as I could strum chords on the guitar I was writing songs. I was never one to learn cover songs. I was always inspired to write, and I think at the time, and still to this day sometimes, it’s easier for me to sing things than it is to say them. So I have always had that as a part of me — writing, like eating or breathing, is something I just have to do.
But there are certainly times, like currently as the band is working on our next album, where there’s a different kind of motivation. We never try to be “the next” anything. We’re not chasing styles or what’s hot right now. We just write the music that we feel good about. So as a band the songwriting process has become much more collaborative. The band has always been a very democratic organization, and we know that if a song or a part of a song is something we’re all excited about, chances are other people will be excited too. We’re driven to inspire each other, and in turn that seems to be reflected in the response by our audience.
Do you prefer writing in the studio, or do you like to develop new songs in front of an audience?
You know, it’s interesting. I think we have, over time, we’ve certainly started writing more in the studio particularly because we’re able to do a lot of [recording] at home. Our bass player Chris is also an audio engineer, and he’s gotten really good at it over the last couple years. With technology where it is, we’re able to record a lot of our stuff at home. By being able to do that we don’t have to spend as much money and time in the studio, so it enables us to explore some of the elements that the studio offers during the writing process, rather than focusing just on production. Some of the songs we’ve written for this new record are more based off, say, a particular drum loop or guitar effect, which we came up with while playing around while recording.
Which artists are currently inspiring you as you’re working on those new songs?
Ed Sheeran, I think he’s amazing, plus Sam Smith and The 1975. I’d say those three are the ones I’ve been listening to the most in the last few months. I love the way all their records sound, and they have similar elements but also certain things which are different. I know as a band we really enjoy The 1975 record.
You sing on “Already Yours” — “Right now we can begin to believe in a life worth more than before.” And I wondered, what do you think it takes to live a life worth more than before?
I think that at the time we were writing that song our guitar player Evan had either just had his first child or his wife was pregnant and about to. And the perspective on what we do shifted when what we were doing became more than about us. Life is not just about four individuals or even one individual going out there and doing something. Even though we weren’t all having kids we were all in it together. We always have been as a band. But you start to gain some perspective on life when people start having kids, realizing that there’s a lot more to life than just what journey we’re on. It’s about what we’re building for the future. I think our personal fulfillment is important too, but it certainly means a lot more when we have more at stake.
I want to talk about your sound for a minute. I hear a lot of Vertical Horizon and Our Lady Peace in your vocals, but then the melody of “Something Real” really drew my ear to Rascal Flatts. So I was wondering what sound you tend to gravitate toward?
Like I said, I don’t try to sound like anybody else. It’s interesting because I don’t listen to any of those three bands. I mean, when I was growing up I guess Vertical Horizon had some hit songs, and we played a couple shows with them, but I never listened to Rascal Flatts or Our Lady Peace, so it is always interesting to hear what other people hear in my voice.
The bigger influences on me were Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, and Dave Matthews. As I got a little older Ryan Adams became probably my favorite artist. So those are the artists who, when I was starting to sing I was probably gravitating more toward. But again, a voice is a voice, right? You’re stuck with it. You can work on it of course, it’s a muscle, like anything you can make it stronger, but the tone of your voice pretty much is going to be what it is. So I just try to be true to myself and give it my best every night on stage. Some people like it, some people don’t. But that’s the way voices go.
Regarding your live show — do you build on your records’ energy when you’re live, or do the records tend to reflect what you’re like live?
I think that’s an interesting question, because, to answer most directly, our live show builds more energy from the record. I think we get a lot of comments like “I love your record, but you guys are awesome live!” We have so much energy live. I think there’s something to that. When the four of us are on stage playing music together we really do love playing music together. You can feel that energy and those feelings come across when we’re on stage. And it’s a little harder to do that, I think, when we’re in the studio because we don’t track live. I don’t know if traditional is the right word, but when we record we’re recording one part at a time. So there’s not quite as much of the live energy in the studio, but that’s something we’ve been more aware of. We certainly want the records to have some of the energy that we have live. But I think it’s always great, as a fan of music, when I hear an album I really like and then I go see a band and I think they’re even more impressive live. There’s nothing worse than when the reverse happens. We take great pride in our live shows and the energy we bring to them — I don’t want to say the live shows are more inspired, but they’re certainly more energetic.
In your opinion as a writer, what do you think makes a great pop song?
Melody first and foremost. I was teaching a class a couple weeks ago and somebody asked did I think was most important, lyric or melody. And the example I used was that you could be listening to a song on the radio or something, singing along to a song, and when you get to the part where you don’t know the words you still keep singing the melody. So I think melody is the most important. But what makes a really great melody stand out and become a hit pop song is when it has a great lyric attached to it that is really meaningful or powerful, something that registers with people. So melody, a powerful lyric, and then a good beat unless it is a ballad. In a pop song people want to feel that beat, but it’s really the melody they first connect to.
To build on that then, if you could only hear one song for the rest of your life, would it be one of yours? Or do you have a certain song you think would be the one you wouldn’t mind hearing over and over again?
Man, it’s interesting because I think those might be two different questions for me. If I had to listen to one song over and over again, I’d probably pick “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers because it’s a 16-minute song and I wouldn’t get bored as quickly of it. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time.
But as far as a pop song, I’ll say one song I absolutely love and always feel really great about, it’s an incredible song every time I hear it, is “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. We don’t do many covers as a band, hardly ever, but on a couple shows we’ve thrown that one in. It started as a special thing we did on this cruise we did, The Rock Boat, but I’m originally from New Jersey so it’s in my blood. But I love that song, a great melody and great lyrics, it’s a really inspiring tune.
What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
I’m not sure what I would want to be asked, but I think one of the things that kind of gets lost, or doesn’t get focused on, is how hard it is to be an artist, a working musician these days. It’s really hard, people don’t think about it. They think: “You have this amazing life, you travel all the time, you get to do what you love!” And that’s all true, but when I was a kid there rarely were shows where a band would be focused. Now kids grow up with shows on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel where there are 13-year-olds with record deals, and everybody around them thinks that’s a normal thing.
The reality is you can be a great band and have great songs. There are plenty of them out there, though, who don’t get the attention I personally think they deserve. But also there’s the flip side to it, that a couple of the guys in our band have kids now. It’s hard to be on the road and be away from them, plus there are all the expenses that go into touring as a band. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to have the financial support of a label or some other investor, but it can be a grind. You really have to do this because it’s what you love to do and it’s really a part of your soul. It’s not about fame and fortune, at least not for us.
It’s interesting you bring that up because I knew you toured with Stephen Kellogg before, and I didn’t know if you read the book, heard about it or read about it. He’d had a kid follow him around a few years ago, Hunter Sharpless, and he wrote a book that came out last month called Song of the Fool. Basically he was on tour with them for a whole month and he realized it was not the Almost Famous version, but rather the day-to-day grind of ending up in a new town, not knowing what you’d do that day, not knowing if you’re going to hate the crowd that night or if the songs would go over well. It was really revealing, because they tour up to 300 nights a year and they have kids at home too.
Song of the Fool. I have to look that up, because that sounds fascinating! That’s true, it’s not like Almost Famous most of the time. I think there maybe is a little bit of appreciation there for how hard it is for an artist to do what we do. It just gets lost sometimes. There are the fans who get it and others who don’t. And that’s okay, it’s not really their responsibility to have that sort of appreciation for it. I think it’s just something that’s often lost on most people, who look to musicians as living the dream. We always joke that we’re really just professional movers and drivers, since we spend most of our days moving here and driving there, and it’s all to get on stage for an hour or two. The other twenty-two are full of things most people wouldn’t want to be doing.
I always liked that song “The Load Out” by Jackson Browne because it seemed to sum up the whole idea that in the end all that mattered was him and his piano. Everything else was going to move around.
Is there anything you’d like to tell people who might be unsure whether they should check out your upcoming show at the Rathskeller?
I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who has been to an Honor By August show and they didn’t have a good time. If you’ve listened to our music there’s definitely an uplifting vibe. We write about love, loss, hope, things that some people might not necessarily be into. A lot of times girls bring their boyfriends to a show and the guy’s like “I didn’t think I was going to like it but you guys were awesome!” We’re a rock band. We bring some energy to the show we’re all playing our instruments and really singing, it’s a good time. People tend to enjoy it. I think if you enjoy live music and want to hear some good, easy to digest songs, I think you’d enjoy yourself if you came out to an Honor By August show.